By Andrea Culletto —
Springtime floats in on a floral-scented breeze, releasing us from the harsh grip of winter, lifting our spirits and imbuing our days with hope. Flora stretches after a long winter’s nap and trees shake off the chill with a fresh crop of emerald-green leaves. Nestled into this delightful season of renewal is a holiday that spawns happiness and hope like no other.
Whether you celebrate in a cathedral or an egg-dotted meadow (or both!), Easter holds a special place in all our hearts. But how much do you actually know about this beloved holiday? Read on to discover more and see what’s happening both at home and abroad.
What is Easter?
This hopeful holiday follows a rather terrifying tale. Christians believe that sometime around 30 A.D., Jesus was arrested by the Romans for claiming to be the Son of God, threatening the stability of the empire. He was sentenced to death by Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate and subsequently crucified. Afterward, his body was laid to rest in a tomb. On the third day, Christians believe he rose from the dead. Easter is the celebratory commemoration of that miraculous event.
Jesus’ resurrection is a cornerstone of the Christian faith, with all four gospels stating that those who believe are given the gift of eternal life.
“Primarily, Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord,” said Pastor Mark Solyst of La Crosse’s English Lutheran Church. “When you strip it down, it really comes back to the Easter promise: Because Christ rose, we have new life, and we have that new life every day. Some reduce it to immortality after we die, but here is where the promise really meets the road: What difference does it make in my everyday life? We’re not alone—the Holy Spirit is with us, gracious and merciful God.”
The first documented Easter celebration occurred in the second century A.D., although it likely began earlier. The word “Easter” is believed to have come from the Latin phrase “in albis.” This became “eostarum” in Old High German, which then shifted to “Easter.” Others believe the term comes from pagan roots, specifically the Germanic goddess of spring, “Eostre.”
Why Does Easter Fall on a Different Day Each Year?
Unlike Christmas, which always falls on Dec. 25, Easter is considered a “moveable feast,” changing its date every year. In western Christianity, it always falls on a Sunday between March 22 and April 25, while the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates between April 4 and May 8. But arriving at this decision was a fascinating and complex process.
Determining the holiday’s annual date created a major rift in the early Christian church. Known as the “Paschal controversies,” the argument of when Easter should be celebrated wasn’t resolved until around the eighth century A.D. In Asia Minor, Christians celebrated the crucifixion on the same day as the Jewish Passover offering, the 14th day of the first full moon of spring. The resurrection was celebrated two days later. In the west, the resurrection was celebrated on the first Sunday after the 14th day of the month of Nisan.
In 325 A.D., the Council of Nicaea decreed that Easter would be celebrated on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. The Eastern Orthodox faith celebrates later, since they use the Julian—not the Gregorian—calendar.
The idea of setting a fixed calendar date for Easter was broached again in the 20th and 21st centuries, but the current system has remained in place. Will it ever be settled? Who knows, but we’re happy to wait, as long as we get to enjoy the faith and fun of this special day.
How Did Bunnies and Eggs Get Involved?
Many Easter traditions stem from outside the Christian faith, extending back to secular or pagan roots. Easter eggs, which feature prominently in the festivities, are believed to represent new life, fertility and birth. Their inclusion could be a holdover from an ancient springtime festivity, but they still carry the same symbolism, representing Jesus’ resurrection—a form of rebirth.
The tradition of decorating eggs dates back to the 13th century A.D. The early church determined eggs shouldn’t be eaten during Holy Week, but the area’s chickens didn’t get the memo. They continued to lay, resulting in a surplus. Local churchgoers put this to good use by decorating them festively for the big day. The tradition has continued ever since. Today, Eastern Orthodox Christians paint their eggs red, symbolizing the blood Jesus shed during his sacrifice.
The Easter Bunny hopped onto the scene in 17th century Protestant Europe. It arrived here in America about a century later, along with a wave of German immigrants. But it wasn’t until the 19th century that it really caught on. Rabbits’ reputation as prolific reproducers makes them a fitting partner for a springtime holiday that celebrates new life. Easter chicks have been incorporated for a similar reason.
Today, the Easter Bunny is known to lay, decorate and hide Easter eggs. In America, it also leaves baskets of goodies for children on Easter morning. This role is often filled by different animals in other countries. For example, in Switzerland, a cuckoo brings the eggs, while in Westphalia, a fox fulfills this joyous spring duty.
Many celebrate Easter with a feast of lamb, which is both a nod to the budding of spring and Jesus’ title as “the lamb of God,” a sacrificial animal in ancient Jewish custom. Early Christians would place lamb meat under the altar, where it would be blessed before the Easter feast.
Several religious denominations have moved to abandon these Easter traditions of dubious origin, but others have welcomed them, holding Easter egg hunts and Easter Bunny visits for parishioners at churches around the country.
How Is Easter Celebrated Religiously?
Pastor Solyst grew up in a small church in Kerkhoven, Minnesota, where he remembered Easter Sundays fondly. “It was always exciting,” he said. “My dad was the church choir director, so it was a big day for him. We’d get up and get dressed in our Easter clothes, walk to church and sing these big hymns.”
Mostly, he remembered the holiday’s exuberant joy. “Lent is a much more somber season,” he said. “You didn’t sing any
hallelujahs. The texts are all reflective and pensive, and you examine your life. But then you get to Easter and get back into these wonderful stories of Mary going to the tomb—thinking Jesus is dead—but the tomb is empty and the angel is there. We got to sing ‘Jesus Christ is Risen Today—Hallelujah!’ The brass is playing and the choir is singing, and everything is decorated with white Easter lilies.”
Although most people know Easter as a one-day holiday, it’s actually an important component of an entire season of religious worship.
In the west, Roman Catholics and some Protestant denominations observe a 40-day period of fasting and penitence called Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday and culminates at Easter time. They celebrate Palm Sunday the week before Easter to commemorate the day Jesus arrived in Jerusalem, when his followers laid palm leaves across the road to honor him.
Palm Sunday kicks off Holy Week, which extends until Easter. This includes Holy Thursday (a celebration of the last supper of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles), Good Friday (when Jesus was crucified), and Easter Sunday (when he’s said to have risen). The period of time from Lent through Easter is dedicated to remembering the “Passion of the Christ” through a series of holidays and events.
For some Protestants, Easter Sunday begins the Easter Season, otherwise known as “Eastertide.” It ends on Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Easter. And in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Easter Sunday begins the Easter season of “Pascha,” which ends on the Feast of the Ascension 40 days later.
How Is Easter Celebrated Secularly?
In America, Easter is celebrated secularly with Easter egg hunts, visits from the Easter Bunny, and feasts with family and friends. These events take place in private homes, public parks, churches and community centers across
The most famous Easter egg hunt takes place on the White House lawn. This tradition is often credited to Lucy Hayes, wife of President Rutherford B. Hayes, who invited families to roll eggs on the White House lawn in 1878.
Children originally gathered on the U.S. Capitol Building Grounds to roll eggs and play on Easter Monday, but the large crowds and damage caused by foot traffic caused President Ulysses S. Grant to forbid the practice in 1876.
Historical records indicate that President and Mrs. Hayes brought the celebration to the White House after a young boy asked President Hayes for permission to egg roll on their lawn. It’s been a much-anticipated and beloved national tradition ever since.
Easter Celebrations Around the World
This simple holiday is celebrated with astonishing variety around the world. Each culture brings its own special offerings to make the holiday memorable. So, while Easter is celebrated for the same reasons globally, the actual festivities often look very different.
In Bermuda, Good Friday is commemorated with kite-flying, hot cross buns and codfish cakes.
Norwegians enjoy the tradition of “Paaskekrim,” or “Easter Crime,” indulging in mystery books and TV crime detective series during the Easter season. Meanwhile, other Norwegians venture into the woods to celebrate with family in nature.
Easter sees the burning of large fires in Northwestern Europe. They’re traditionally meant to chase away the darkness of winter, but are now a time for revelry and camaraderie.
In Sweden, families dine on herring, eggs and “Jansson’s Temptation,” a baked dish composed of onion, potato, pickled sardines and cream. Swedish children also take to the streets in the days leading up to Easter Sunday dressed as Easter witches, trading their artistic creations for sweets.
In Bessieres, southern France, residents celebrate this exceptional holiday with an exceptional breakfast: a massive omelet. Recently, 15,000 eggs were used to create this hulking breakfast item. The meal is cooked by the Giant Omelette Brotherhood of Bessieres, who stir the mixture with extra-long baguettes.
In Romania, Easter eggs are taken to a whole new level. These intricately patterned creations are a matter of national pride. Each is a well of symbolism, portraying their creator’s daily life and most deeply held beliefs. They differ based on region as well, with motifs such as the wheat ear, sun, leaf or cross showing up in Bucovina, and more subdued and naturalistic motifs appearing in Muntenia and Oltenia.
Pastor Mark Solyst’s most memorable Easter occurred when he was teaching in Ethiopia. Joining with members of the Ethiopian Evangelical Church of Mekane Yesus (EECMY), Solyst rose at 3:30 in the morning and joined the crowds marching in the streets of Nekemte. “We were out there blowing horns and making noise, and some people had torches,” he recalled. “We ended at the mountain, where we celebrated Easter as the sun came up. It was enormous. There were tens of thousands of people there … many people don’t know that the Orthodox tradition in Ethiopia goes back to the first century A.D.”
Afterward, Solyst led a 10 a.m. service at the EECMY mother church, packed with between 700 and 800 people. “It was quite a privilege and honor to preach there,” he said.
But it didn’t go quite as he expected. “The president of that church was my interpreter,” he recalled. “I preached for about 40 minutes—any less and they think you’re shorting them—and afterward, my friends who taught at seminary said, ‘Mark, you preached a good sermon, and so did the president.’
“I was confused—what had happened? It turned out that the president of that church wanted to preach his own Easter sermon—so he did. I thought he was interpreting for me, but he did his own thing instead,” Solyst added with a laugh.
Here in La Crosse, Solyst relishes every Easter season. “As a preacher, there’s no better time to proclaim the good news of the resurrection and what it means for our lives,” he said. “There’s always hope … In a world that’s dominated by negativity, fear and inequality, the Easter message proclaims a hope that the world can be different. And everyone is welcome to come experience the joy, hope and love of Easter. There’s a saying, ‘Only when the power of love overcomes the love of power, there will be peace.’ That’s the story of Easter—that God’s love is revealed in the coming of Jesus Christ and in his sacrifice. That’s a power no evil can ever stop or overcome.”
Celebrate Easter in the La Crosse Area
Clearwater Farm Easter Egg Hunt
Don’t miss this fun family experience at Clearwater Farm in Onalaska! For more information, visit www.clearwaterfarm.org/events-rentals.
Visit the Children’s Museum of La Crosse on April 19 from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m. for riotous Easter fun. Meet the Easter Bunny, hunt for eggs, play games and make creative crafts. Earn bunny money to purchase prizes! This event costs $5 for each member child and $12 for non-member children. Adults cost $1. For ages 2-7. For more information, visit www.explorelacrosse.com/event/easter-egg-stravaganza-3.
Onalaska Easter Egg Hunt
Search for Easter eggs on Saturday, April 20, at 12 p.m. in Carlisle Park, one block south of Onalaska High School. It will be a hoppin’good time! For more information, visit www.onalaskaalliance.org/onalaska-easter-egg-hunt.html.